Festival month is upon us – from Speyside, through Campbeltown and ending this coming weekend on Islay with Feis Ile. And that means bottlings – limited edition, notionally desirable, chasey bottlings all ripe from the secondary market <sigh>. The good chaps at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society have once again launched (or in some cases are launching) a range of new releases to celebrate each of the three May festivals. The Dramble joined a live streaming event from the Ardshiel Hotel with John McCheyne (Master Brand Ambassador) and Matt Bailey (Australia’s National Brand Ambassador) last night to taste our way through five of the new festival releases.
The Campeltown Virtual Tasting Pack – which you can still pick up from SMWS for £35 contains five samples drawn from five distinctive distilleries – two for the Speyside festival, one for Campbeltown and two for Feis Ile - oh and some talented bottle photography from the lovely John Watkinson (@jwbassman_). But, there’s still a few more Society festival bottlings to come. We’ve noted the following over the past few weeks, though whether these will be general releases or Society venue specials is impossible to tell. Nevertheless, there's quite the haul in addition to the expressions already included in the tasting pack.
3.313 Tempting trilogy of tastes (14 year old Bowmore) 10.169 Obsidian salmagundi (9 year old Bunnahabhain) 10.170 Cooking for Hades (10 year old Bunnahabhain) 23.75 Whisky of a bygone era (27 year old Bruichladdich) 29.261 An evil Dutchman’s dram (21 year old Laphroaig) 53.285 Beachcomber's stash (10 year old Caol Ila) 53.286 Salt strewn on smoky marmalade (10 year old Caol Ila)
Alas, festival bottles of all types sell out on impact – and despite the SMWS releases really only being ‘usual’ monthly bottlings, but with a colourful special label, this doesn’t in any way put folks off chasing them down (a couple have been and gone already). So, if you want any of the expressions, suffice to say, you’re going to need to get a wiggle on.
Bottle Name: 9.161 Cream tea at the patisserie
ABV: 60.9% Distillery: Glen Grant Bottler: Scotch Malt Whisky Society Flavour Profile: Sweet, fruity & mellow Region: Speyside
An 11 year old Glen Grant drawn from a 2nd fill ex-bourbon barrel.
Nose: Big ripe apples are joined by vanilla cream, pancake batter and lemon sponge cake. Dessert-like aromas continue with strawberry Eton mess, dusted in nutmeg with a serving of Chantilly cream alongside. The addition of water adds some garden-fresh notes of cut rose stems, whilst fudge and icing sugar emerge for additional sweetness.
Taste: Quite punchy – the 60.9% ABV delivering a hefty arrival of toffee coated apples, tart grapefruit segments and an abundance of lemon peels. There’s a trifle booziness quality here – meringue, whipped cream, nutmeg and heady pepper, but all kept in line by a substantive alcoholic quality. Reduction feels necessary, but does provide the benefits one would hope for – a juicy compote of kiwi, honeydew melon and orchard fruits (apples and pears). Buttered toast, fudge and cinnamon make an appearance – reinforcing the liquid’s ex-bourbon origins.
Finish: Medium in length with rich tea biscuits, vanilla pod and dry oakiness.
A surprisingly hard-hitting Glen Grant, which to my mind is crying out for reduction. There’s a lot of defined fruitiness here, but at its natural strength this feels more akin to cream tea at the patisserie accompanied by a death metal soundtrack. Toned down a notch or two, this is a much more agreeable and balanced experience.
Bottle Name: 29.260 A visceral, elemental experience
An unusually categorised Laphroaig that’s spent 16 years in an American oak oloroso butt before being re-racked into a 1st fill Spanish oak oloroso butt. Clearly sometimes there’s never enough sherry.
Nose: Expressive and aromatic. The wood is quite dominant – furniture shops, attics and old garden sheds – joined by deep earthy liquorice, espresso beans and leather armchairs. Heady. There’s a good amount of smoke here – it’s dirty, but lacking the powerful medical qualities one might expect from this distillery – smoked kippers, engine oils and axle grease. Resting is helpful – unlocking brighter aromas of orange zest, jammy hedgerow berries and a roast ham joint studded with cloves. Dilution adds yet more diversity – langoustine bisque, Cinnabon pastries and a coating of wood varnish.
Taste: An incredible ashy and bitumous arrival – burnt loads, spent hearth fires and bitumous dust. Spent coffee grounds, chocolate sponge cake, brown sugars, maple bacon and balsamic firmly fix this in the heavily sherried category – they’re supported by burnt cinnamon dusted pastry, smoked red berries, and macerated cherries. In the back-palate maltiness – like a solid brown ale. Water tames the smoke quickly making things more soft, malty and pastry-led – baked loaves and buns, choux pastry and soft malt loaf alongside reduced apples and pears baked in an upside down cake.
Finish: Quite long, lingering on a gathering medicinalness with mentholated chocolate, balsamic and wood preservative.
A fascinatingly aberrant Laphroaig that I can’t help but feel is woefully mis-categorised. Sure, there is (unsurprisingly given the maturation), plenty of deep sherried fruits and sugars – but, at its heart this is still quite the peated whisky. There might not be TCP and iodine, but there sure is ash and smouldering materials. Nevertheless, this is captivating stuff with plenty of impactful flavours from a very vigorous sherry maturation. Just the over-abundance of cask influence keeps it from the upper echelons of my scoring.
Decently aged Glenrothes with a double sherry treatment – first, 19 years in an ex-oloroso butt, then a finishing period in 2nd fill Pedro Ximenez.
Nose: Immediately detectable rich butter cream from the off, supported by orange peels, and a good scattering of dried fruits (raisins and figs ). Pecan pie and chocolate sponge cake are joined by demerara sugar and shelled pistachios. Straight-forward, but undeniably effective. The addition of water has me thinking about pink wafer biscuits whilst cookie dough, peanut butter and nutmeg spicing all add to the rich, nutty sherried profile.
Taste: Certainly as substantive as the bottle name implies – heady burnt toffee and heavily reduced fruits (orange, clementine and raspberry jams and preserves) sit alongside stewed plums, figs and prunes. The development is swift, but focusses primarily on nuttiness with both hazelnut and walnuts making an appearance, before giving way to tobacco leaf, white pepper and ginger spicing. Reduction gives more breathing space to the orange components – tangerine, mandarin etc – also adding a strange ‘putty’ like note that’s part resinous, part tile grouting.
Finish: Medium to long in length with maple syrup and chocolate sauce dusted with cinnamon and pepper whilst walnut nuttiness sustains into the fade.
A no-surprises but entirely tasty sherried Glenrothes which will more than give those with a sweeter tooth their monthly fix. There’s nothing out of whack here and the combinations of aromas and flavours are entirely sherry-esque. Tasty stuff, but interestingly I preferred this with a little water where it felt softer, juicier and somehow extra moreish.
Over to the North East coast of Islay for a 13 year old 2nd fill ex-bourbon Bunnahabhain.
Nose: Initially a touch shy, but opening substantively after a brief resting period. Pear juice sweetness is tempered by minerality in the form of rockpools, shingle beaches and salt water. In the background, honeysuckle and heather provide floralness whilst chalk and crushed aspirin add to the minerality but in a dusty fashion. Reduction adds plenty of brine whilst also emphasising biscuit crumb, underipe mango and reed-like grassiness.
Taste: Chiselled and hewn with flintiness, granite beach groynes and chalky cliffs. Sage seasoned sausages, fleshly caught line-fish and sharp and tart lemon is supported by salinity and gentle nutmeg spicing. The addition of water is stunningly transformative – moving away from the coast and into the bake house – rolled pastry, crepes and toffee covered choux buns with just the slightly touch of smoky charred wood.
Finish: Medium and tart with lemon and grapefruit alongside warm malty bread and chipped limestone.
Interesting. In its natural high ABV state this Bunna is precise, sharp and mineral - but once reduced it takes on an entirely different composition on the palate, favouring natural sugars and patisserie over its coastal origins. Solid and entirely enjoyable.
The sole Campbeltown dram in the Campbeltown Virtual Tasting Pack comes courtesy of Glen Scotia – this example, a 10 year old drawn from a 1st fill ex-bourbon barrel.
Nose: An early morning walk in woodland – green leaves, fir cones and sprue trees sit with wet soils, white chocolate and gooseberries. Waxy woodiness with camphor and a ‘quartzy’ mineral vein are supported by griddled waffles and puff pastry. Reduction adds doughnuts, toasted bread, nutmeg and allspice making for altogether more rounded experience.
Taste: Forest camp fires – ‘green’ smoke from fresh bracken, moss and fallen leaves together with resinous charred tree bark. The development moves into sharp lemon and gooseberry before emphasising cloth, hessian and leather. Diluted, this has some flintiness with sharp-edged rocks, whilst mild-mannered hospital antiseptic creams present itself alongside buttery flan and tart cases.
Finish: Quite long with wood smoke, bitter steeped tea, biting citrus and a pang of medicinalness in the background.
A theme seems to be emerging with this year’s festival releases – I much prefer all of them diluted. This Glen Scotia is no exception to that, offering a sense of ‘vagueness’ in its natural state, whilst coming alive with brighter and sweeter top notes and flavours once reduced. There’s been a raft of good 93s over the last few months….this one is entirely decent, but not quite in the same compelling league.